Columbia resident John R. Righter was convicted yesterday of forcing a former co-worker into his vehicle and driving her handcuffed to Ohio in a case of infatuation turned obsession.
The verdict came after Righter presented no evidence in his defense, leaving Stephanie Musick's gripping testimony about her 19-hour abduction virtually unchallenged. Howard Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney found Righter, 22, guilty of eight counts, including kidnapping, false imprisonment and assault.
Sentencing is scheduled July 31. The kidnapping charge alone carries a maximum sentence of 30 years.
Court documents made public at the end of a brief trial revealed more details of Righter's obsession with Musick, 21, and his possible plans after the kidnapping.
Found inside his car when Righter was apprehended in Englewood, Ohio, were several books about how to "disappear" and "change your identity," along with eight pages of detailed notes that prosecutors say Righter had taken on the books' contents.
Assistant State's Attorney William V. Tucker said the books showed Righter had a plan when he abducted Musick at gunpoint from in front of her Columbia home in September.
"It is scary for some people out there that are being followed and pursued," Tucker said after the verdict. "Do you call it obsession? Do you call it fatal attraction? It was more than just very infatuated."
Righter's attorney, Louis P. Willemin, argued that prosecutors had not proven the crimes, primarily on technical grounds. Sweeney disagreed.
"There is no question in this court's mind that a kidnapping took place," Sweeney said, calling the evidence "overwhelming" when making his ruling. Righter waived his right to a trial by jury.
In his opening statement, Willemin said his client was "infatuated" with Musick. But Musick testified that she had objected to Righter's unwanted attention while the pair worked at Sears in Columbia.
Complaint to police
After Righter had left the job, she discovered he followed her home from Western Maryland College on Sept. 5. She called the police.
Maryland law requires that there be a pattern of harassment before a stalking charge can be filed. Police have said they did all they could -- they spoke to Righter after Musick's complaint, and he promised not to bother her. Two weeks later, she was kidnapped.
'How to erase your past'
Among the books found after Righter's arrest was "How To Disappear Completely and Never Be Found." The notes on its back read, "Identity changing is not for everyone. If you decide to disappear you will know how to do it so completely that no one will ever find you."
The back of another book, "How to Create a New Identity," reads: "This book not only tells you how to create a new identity but also how to erase your past completely."
Prosecutors said Righter made notes, kept inside a blue zippered shoulder bag, on methods recommended in the books -- getting business cards, library cards, Social Security cards and group membership cards. "Small donation to group usually ensures card," the notes say.
"Applying for a new birth certificate," Righter wrote. "Call office, JTC find out procedures (more rural, more relaxed)."
Note left with cookie
He also wrote notes to Musick.
Court documents show that after Musick told Righter to leave her alone, he left a note with a cookie on her car last summer. It was for her birthday.
"I don't know if I'll ever see or hear you again, either way I want to thank you," the note reads. "Thanks for talking to me when everybody had long since given up on me. Thanks for looking at me when most others ignored my presence."
The note ends with an order -- "Now I know you don't like to be bossed around, but I feel that on this occasion it is a moral imperative that I do so. I order you, no, I command you to take good care of yourself. Promise that you will. Thank you, Miss Stephanie Musick. From: John 'The Tragic Hero' Righter."
Poem on infatuation
In September, Righter e-mailed Musick a love poem that talks of the narrator's uncontrollable infatuation with a woman.
"From a gentler blue did I get lost/impassioned regardless of the cost./ Can I see this beauty across a crowded pew/or sit beside her for a better view?/ My mind drifts toward darker things/victimized by what memory brings."
Defendant tracked woman
Prosecutors said that Righter kept notes of Musick's actions. Tucker presented in court a small, square, blue piece of paper on which Righter wrote down Musick's morning and afternoon activities for a week. At the entry for Thursday of an unidentified week, Righter wrote: "school morning/drove behind me."
Stalking "is a very difficult issue for women because it's one of those 'I-told-you-so' crimes," said Judith Clancy, executive director of Howard County's Domestic Violence Center. "By the time the authorities are able to do something about it, the damage has been done."
"I think often these guys think if they can just get the victim alone they can convince her that she should love him, that he could make her happy," Clancy said. There are others who are out for revenge, she said.
Accused in high school
Righter, a 1993 graduate of Wilde Lake High School, had been accused in his senior year of harassing a female student, but was not disciplined, school officials have said. The girl's parents called the school to complain.
After graduating, Righter joined the Army and was sent to Fort Benning, Ga., for boot camp. He was discharged two months later.
Yesterday, Righter showed no emotion as Sweeney read his verdict. His attorney and his mother, Carol Righter, declined to comment. For most of the trial, Righter kept his head bowed and stared at the floor. While testifying, Musick looked at Righter several times, almost flinching with fear, months after the incident.
Said Tucker: "I think it was obvious from Stephanie's looks toward him that she was still scared."
Pub Date: 5/28/98